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Mainstream, VOL LII No 51, December 13, 2014

Stray Thoughts of a Human Rights Lawyer on Human Rights Day

Monday 15 December 2014, by Nandita Haksar

The following article has been written on the occasion of the Human Rights Day (December 10).

For those behind bars

The best moments in my life are those when I stood outside a jail waiting for my client to step out—a free man again. Yes they were all men, I had no women clients who were in jail in all my thirty years practice.

There were the Burmese students who had crossed the border to take refuge in India and found themselves in an Indian jail; there were Naga villagers arrested by the Indian armed forces during counter-insurgency ops and handed to the police. Then there was the time I appeared for a Kashmiri accused of terrorism; two men charged with hijacking. And then there was a fellow human rights activist who was in jail.

Yes. It is good to help a man regain his freedom. But I was always aware that all these men whom I helped to free were themselves responsible for imprisoning their wives within the four walls of their small homes.

And then the thought: how many more could I have saved? So many people are still in jail, languishing only because they do not have a lawyer.

And if I remember that there are nine million men, women and children in the jails and prisons around the world, then I no longer feel so pleased with my own sense of achievement.

Nobel Prize for Peace

Of course Malala is a wonderful symbol of defiance against the Islamic militancy’s attitude towards women. But the blitz of publicity for the brave little Pakistani girl is designed not so much to uphold women’s rights as to justify war.

The identification of the enemy in the war against terror with repressive treatment of women is a part of the strategy to build a notion that the US’ war against terror is for women’s rights.

The horrors of the war against terror would not have been exposed if it had not been for Bradley Manning, a US soldier in his early twenties. He is now in prison.

Bradley Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison for passing hundreds of thousands of classified military documents to WikiLeaks.

The 25-year-old soldier was convicted of leaking more than 700,000 classified documents and video. The disclosures amounted to the biggest leak in US military history. The material included a video of a US Apache helicopter gunning down unarmed civilians in a Baghdad street.

Ben Wizner, Director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, said: “When a soldier who shared information with the press and public is punished far more harshly than others who tortured prisoners and killed civilians, something is seriously wrong with our justice system.”1

Bradley Manning has gender identity disorder or gender dysphoria; it means she has an innate sense of being a female and therefore wants to be called Chelsea. She is being denied treatment in jail.

Many people have said that it is Chelsea Manning who should have been given the Nobel Peace Prize; others say that Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, should be the joint winner of the coveted prize.

Assange and his cyber punk friends exposed the illegal and immoral behaviour of the Western states and the horrors of the war in Afghanistan.

The stories covered a huge arena of the war, from the existence of a covert US assassination squad, Task Force 373, which had been roaming Afghanistan targeting the Taliban leaders, to the story of Shum Khan, who lived in a remote village in the mountains near the Pakistan border. When the CIA paramilitary squad charged into a village and ordered him to stop, he kept running and was shot dead. What the CIA didn’t know was that Shum Khan was deaf and had not heard their commands. 2

In a survey conducted by The Guardian, it was revealed that the majority of readers felt Edward Snowden should have been given the Nobel Peace Prize. Snowden leaked documents revealing global surveillance by the US and UK to The Guardian and others last year, received 47 per cent of the readers votes, with educational campaigner Malala gaining 36 per cent and Snowden’s fellow American whistle-blower Chelsea Manning at 15 per cent.

It strikes me that Julian Assange, Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning are true human rights defenders. But the only way they could defend those rights was by breaking the law. So human rights and rule of law do not always go together.

Amnesty International

Many people owe their lives to Amnesty International. And I do too; if it had not been for a phone from Amnesty when the Indian Army was raiding my room in Imphal perhaps I would have been harmed in ways I do not care to imagine.

But Amnesty International’s work with a wide range of human rights issues has never put the organization to any risk. As one of its own Directors observed many decades ago: “We have defined as fundamental human rights those rights which can be accorded to people in our society without posing any threat to our socio-political system.” He called it well-intentioned arrogance.3

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch do not even question of the wars that have left to massive human rights violations in Afghanistan, Iraq and parts of Africa; even though the basis of the international human rights law was to prevent wars.

Both AI and HRW urged all “’beligerents’” (without distinguishing between the attackers and the attacked) at the outset of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq to respect the rules of war, neither group said a word about the illegality of the war itself. As one expert pointed out: “[t]hese organisations are in the position of those who recommend that rapists use condoms”, ignoring the fact that once the intervention they failed to oppose “takes place on a large scale, human rights and the Geneva Conventions are massively violated”.

The best critiques of the politics of human rights has come from Western intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky, Edward S. Herman, Jean Bricmont and Diana Johnstone. I wonder why Indian human rights activists have not questioned the legitimacy of international human rights discourse and even Leftists have been proud to be called human rights defenders by AI and HRW, accepting their accolades and prizes.

So now we know why Amnesty International got the Nobel Peace Prize. It confines its moral indignation within the limits acceptable to the establishment.

Islam, Women’s Rights and Human Rights

Throughout my life as a human rights lawyer, I have always found a conflict between human rights discourse and women’s rights. I have written and spoken about those conflicts often enough but now the debate has got a lot more complex.

In a way the debate came to the centre-stage of international human rights community when Gita Sahgal, the head of Amnesty International’s Gender, Sexuality and Identity Unit resigned in protest against the partnership between the human rights organisation and Caged Prisoners, an organisation set up by a former prisoner of Guantanamo Bay, Moazzem Beg.

Once again women’s rights and human rights had come into conflict. Gita had powerful friends and there was a worldwide campaign condemning Amnesty International for the circumstances which led to Gita’s resignation. Among her most illustrious supporters was Salman Rushdie.

There were feminists who criticised Gita. For instance, feminist scholars did point out: “We are concerned with the language and logic they (Gita and her friends) leverage to articulate their critiques, which seems disturbingly proximate to the dominant discourse criminalising Muslim identities and sponsored violence suffered by Muslim men and women.”4

I wonder why all these very articulate people did not come out with any criticism of Amnesty International’s refusal to condemn the war and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq; or expose the role of the West in financing the radical Islam and some have argued even in the creation of the Al-Qaeda.

Political Islam versus the West

Prof Michel Chossudovsky has argued that it was ”crucial for the development of a coherent anti-war and civil rights movement, to reveal the nature of Al Qaeda and its evolving relationship to successive US administrations”.

Amply documented but rarely mentioned by the mainstream media, the Al Qaeda was a creation of the CIA going back to the Soviet-Afghan war. This was a known fact, corroborated by numerous sources including official documents of the US Congress. The intelligence community had time and again acknowledged that they had indeed supported Osama bin Laden, but that in the wake of the Cold War “he turned against us”.

After 9/11, the campaign of media disinfor-mation served not only to drown the truth but also to kill much of the historical evidence on how this illusive “outside enemy” had been fabricated and transformed into “Enemy Number One”.5

The Politics of Fear

The role of intelligence agencies is growing like a science-fiction creature with claws in every corner of the world; the intelligence agencies have become a part of the criminal justice system: active in arrests and trials of suspects.

In the USA some 1271 government organis-ations, and 1931 private companies work on programmes related to counter-terrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States. An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top security clearances...6

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted during the Cold War; it has been used more for perpetuating the war rather than lessening the tension. With the so-called War on Terror international human rights standards have been lowered so that torture, arbitrary imprisonment and extra-judicial executions have been sanctioned by executive orders.

But... and this but is important, it is the UDHR which still provides a weapon to challenge the excesses of War Against Terror. Without the Universal Declaration and the Bill of Rights no prisoners from Guantanamo would have been released; no undertrials in Indian jails would have been freed by the Supreme Court and human rights discourse also provides us with a language to counter the politics of fear.


1. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/aug/21/bradley-manning-35-years-prison-wikileaks-sentence

2. Andrew Fowler, The Most Dangerous Man in the World, New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2013.

3. Cosmas Desmond, Persecution East and West, Penguin Special, 1983.

4. Margaret L Satterthwaite and Jayne C Huckerby, Gender, National Security and Counter-terrorism Human Rights Perspectives, 2012.

5. http://www.globalresearch.ca/9-11-and-america-s-war-on-terrorism/24975

6. Akbar Ahmed, The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror became a Global War on Tribal Islam, Noida: Harper Collins, 2013.

The author is a human rights lawyer and writer.

ISSN : 0542-1462 / RNI No. : 7064/62